Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Those who ought to read this won’t


We’ve all heard that our public schools are failing to educate the people. What they were supposed to do, in the words of their visionary and principal founders, Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, was to turn out capable, wise, and responsible citizens of the new republic.

And of course the schools have never done anything like this, but they’ve never ceased right up until today, some 200 years since their founding, to defend themselves and what they are doing from the principal charge of having failed to make at least large numbers of us into responsible citizens of our Republic.

I will mention here just two striking bits of evidence of the widespread failure of the schools, just two from many hundreds of them. And these two I take from some of the loudest noises reaching us from the presidential campaign now going on.

There are two groups of primary voters, by and large Republican, who are making most of the noise, and while doing so showing little knowledge, little awareness of the traditional, both liberal and conservative values that have made our country great. Instead, for example, of welcoming immigrants to the country, they would turn them away or what is even worse deport those who are already here. And we need not even speak of the wall they would build.

One large group of the school failures, if not dropouts, are the evangelicals. The real history of the country (not to mention the history of the world) is of no significance alongside their sacred books, that is the writings in the bible. While they ought to have read history, of civilization, and of the planet  earth, they have spent their time reading the bible. They don’t seem to have understood that the bible is not a history, but a work, a work of literature, a great one, written by tens if not hundreds of different authors. And author views and opinions, and even wisdom, may be gained by reading the bible, but not the truth, and certainly not what the Evangelicals pretend to know, the knowledge of good and evil.

The evangelicals are in the thralls of their own religious dogma, one that doesn’t free them but ties them to other true believers from other religions. And in fact their allies are the extremist Jewish settlers in Palestine, and the others everywhere like them, including, although they probably won’t admit this, the Sunni and Shia extremists now engaged in a bloody and destructive war where the innocent thousands are being forced to flee or stay and be killed, and this because of their own incorrect reading of their own sacred book the Quran.

The schools ought to have taught their graduates that free and open societies, under the rule of laws created not by God but by representatives of the people, are what holds the promise of the very best life for all of us. And that it is incumbent upon the graduates to preserve that freedom and openness to which the schools ought to have introduced them. Instead, their graduates, and in particular the Evangelicals, would close themselves off from others, destroying what would or should have been a natural acceptance of those different from them in the process, and all the time telling us how to live, citing their sacred work, the bible as the single and sufficient source of truth.

They say they are defending the family. Now it is one thing to defend the family that which by itself may be just fine, but it is something else entirely to begin with one’s own definition of the family, saying what a family is and what it is not, saying for example that families started by two men or two women are not families.

For the hundreds of years of our country’s history, of which the Evangelicals have learned very little while in school or out, a freedom and openness to the new ought to have shown us that families, meaning groups of us, come in all forms, in all sizes, in all colors, and the only truth, the only proof of a family, whether it is a family or not, is how the members treat one another, with compassion and understanding to begin with. For ultimately there is just the one family, the Family of Man, and who would exclude anyone from that?

So far the Evangelicals do not rule the world, “Thank God.”. At the present time there are still thriving groups of moderate and tolerant peoples, in both the Eastern and Western worlds, where open and free societies, under the rule of law and not religion, are considered the very highest good, and where religious dogma, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or other, is the greatest obstacle, Hélas! to their realization.

And the other noise, the second noise of which I speak, coming out of the primary elections, the other bit of evidence of the ignorance of our people? What is that? Well that has to be, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, Donald Trump and his followers.

The United Nations and The Public Schools

There is no end to our profound dissatisfaction with the UN and the Public Schools

with both in respect to what they intended to accomplish and the little they have in fact accomplished. Those who founded both the UN and the public schools misunderstood basic principles, the ones of nations and the others of education.

The founders of the UN didn’t understand that nations, at least for the foreseeable future, would never give up their sovereignty to an external power, in this case the United or earlier, the League of, Nations.

Then the founders of our public schools, not the ancients of Greece and Rome, or the churchmen of the Middle Ages, but the moderns, people like Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and Henry Barnard, while they couldn’t say enough about the importance to the future of the country of a knowledgeable and engaged citizenry, didn’t at all understand the dual, both public and private, nature of education.

They didn’t understand that knowledgeable and responsible citizenry could only result from both public and private experiences. And no better did they  understand that most education could never be confined to a single place, such as a classroom, although the so-called one room schools were always more successful than the 100 room or more school buildings that eventually replaced them.

The problems of the UN most of all reflect the fact that nations are first of all true not to an ideal, but to themselves, and in particular to whatever their own interests may be, and where their own advantages lie. The problems (and also the successes) of the public schools reflect much more the income levels of the district populations that send their children to the school than any particular program or curriculum that the schools may have come up with. 

In this regard I know very well that I’m not saying anything original. James Coleman in 1966, in a paper that came to be widely read and known as the “Coleman Report,” looked at the performance of over 150,000 students and found that student background and socioeconomic status were much more important in determining educational outcomes than anything else. He also found (this no surprise of course) that socially disadvantaged black students did better in school when they were in racially mixed classrooms. He might also have said (perhaps he did) that they did better in school when from racially mixed neighborhoods. And now he might have included Latinos with Blacks.

So the founders of both the UN and the public schools didn’t know what they were doing. They entirely missed the enormity of the tasks they had taken upon themselves. Have nations be subservient to an external governing body, wasn’t going to happen. Have kids’ learning be public, some six to eight hours a day, and some forty or more weeks of the year, wasn’t to be. While the kids may have been learning, it was probably not for the most part in often sterile the public spaces they were obliged to frequent.

For kids, no less than adults, no less than people everywhere are mostly private individuals and for the most part do their learning in private, and the public schools do not allow for that. It’s ironic that those who are given an opportunity to learn in private are those who as a punishment for not being attentive  in class are sent off to a room by themselves, if not expelled and sent home.

So where is my reasoning taking us? Well to something that is all too familiar. The greatest tasks that we now confront are pretty much not yet within our power to accomplish. Nations need to not think first of themselves, and no nation I know of is anywhere near doing that. Kids need to be helped to discover themselves, find about themselves, yes, to know themselves. And that isn’t now and won’t be happening in an environment that worships the public environment at the expense of the individual and yes private needs of the children.

We’re probably no closer to having a true United Nations than we were at the time of the founding of the present UN some 70 years ago. Are we any closer today than at the time of the founding of the Common School of Horace Mann to having a real education available to our children? Alas, no. The public schools, created for the purpose of producing a knowledgeable citizenry, have probably been the greatest obstacle to that ever happening. In their glorification of the public they have neglected and even forgotten the private.

The greatest irony of all may very well be that in forgetting about the private nature of learning it is the public, and in particular public life, that has suffered the most. For isn’t it true that the strengths of the individual citizens, developed and grown strong, more in private than in public, that will eventually make for the strength of the public community?

And the greatest tragedy of all may very well be the failure of the nations of the world to form a true community of nations, that failure stemming from the nations, including our own, not having realized, and still not realizing, that their true strength lies not in their own flag, their own history even transformed by myth and legend, but in their becoming a part of something greater, a true union  of nations, that which so far we only talk about.

Post Scriptum:

Public was forced upon us by the government (and it didn’t take of course), and now private is being promoted by the parents who would save their kids, and among thousands of alternative educational environments (not schools necessarily) more and more of them are turning to homeschooling, that which is rapidly growing and prospering, and perhaps best thought of as a kind of citadel of the private.